New round of peace talks set to start in Geneva
GENEVAA new round of peace talks with the aim finding a solution to the Syrian war is set to start on Feb. 23 in Geneva after a 10-month recess and with differences on the ground and in the world’s political arena.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, invited all parties, including Syrian regime and opposition delegations, to return to the negotiations.
However, the parties have different opinions on establishing a transitional government, which is expected to be one of the main topics of the talks.
While the Syrian opposition, Turkey and Western powers seek a brand new authority with full powers, Russia and Iran claim a transition will need to share some powers with the existing regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 22 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow was open for dialogue with the United States on safety zones in Syria, noting that any such initiative needs to be coordinated with the Syrian government.
Lavrov said he had briefly discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when they met in Germany last week.
U.S. President Donald Trump has floated safe zones as a substitute for resettling refugees in the United States and elsewhere around the globe. Turkey says it wants a terror-free safe zone in Syria for the refugees.
The new round of Geneva talks is expected to be different than that of the last time when the warring sides met in Geneva in April 2016. Al-Assad’s military advances, with Russian and Iranian help, have transformed the battlefield since the last U.N. talks broke up without progress.
The political context is similarly unrecognizable, with new leadership in Washington and the United Nations and tentative coordination between Turkey, Russia and Iran.
But while a cease-fire exists, at least nominally, across most of Syria, there has been little movement on the issues that dogged previous rounds of talks.
The opposition will press for prisoner releases, the lifting of government sieges, and above all for a political transition leading to the end of Assad’s rule.
The government side is expected to stick with its view that the entire armed opposition are terrorists. And with Assad militarily stronger than he has been for years, it has the option of pressing home its advantage on the ground if it doesn’t get its way at the negotiating table.
Anas al-Abdah, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said: “We are fully committed to the Geneva talks and prepared to discuss a political solution and transition. We cannot address the profound security threats... while Assad remains in power.”
U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura summed up his mood as “determined” as he prepared for Syrian delegates to arrive on Feb. 22. He wants to focus on reforming the governance of Syria, introducing a new constitution, and holding elections under U.N. supervision.
This talks come around one month after talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana took place with the support of Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile on the ground, an alliance of mainly Kurdish and some Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), seized more than a dozen villages in eastern Syria near Deir ez-Zor on Feb. 21 in their drive to encircle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) bastion of Raqqa.
The U.S.-backed SDF made a major incursion into the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor as part of their push for Raqqa, field commander Dejwar Khabat said.
“Our aim is to cut the road to Raqqa and besiege ISIL... We have liberated 15 villages,” Khabat said on Feb. 21 in the town of Makmaneh, which lies on a major highway approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Raqqa city.
He said ISIL was dispatching suicide bombers but had not been able to slow the offensive.
Syrian government warplanes carried out several air strikes against towns in mostly rebel-held Idlib on Feb. 21 after insurgents fired on two besieged Shiite villages in the province, a pro-Damascus media outlet and war monitors said.
The air strikes killed at least six people and wounded 21 others in Maarat Misreen, and left several injured in nearby Binnish, just a few kilometers (miles) from Idlib city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.